From advertising to caring

by Mark Tungate , Adforum

To paraphrase Shakespeare, this is the era of discontent. They're even rioting in Rio. Anybody who's seen the movie City of God knows that life in the capital of samba was never perfect, but even so, most of us liked to picture it as a paradise of carefree beach culture. When they can't cope on the Copacabana, you know the world is going down the drain.

This general malaise seems to have infected another beachfront town: Cannes. At the recent Festival of Creativity, agencies and advertisers seemed to be falling over themselves to show us that they not only wanted to sell us stuff, they also cared about our lives. It was as if they were worried that ad-phobic consumers might band together to Occupy Madison Avenue. AKQA co-founder and creative director James Hilton summed this up very well when he told me that he was tired of "advertising pollution". Instead he was looking for work that was useful, that actually brought something into our lives. "Add-vertising," he called it.

"Caring" was all over Cannes. As I'm sure you know by now, a public information film won the film Grand Prix (the droll "Dumb Ways To Die", from McCann Melbourne, warning people to play safe around the subway). The outdoor Grand Prix was also useful rather than intrusive: devised by Ogilvy France, it cleverly illustrated IBM’s goal of creating “smarter cities”.

Smarter cities

The second ever Mobile Grand Prix was very caring too: Filipino telecoms company Smart turned old analogue phones into school books for kids by reprogramming discarded SIM cards with textbooks edited into 160-character bites. (The agency was DDB DM9).

And should you be in any doubt about the noble nature of this year's Cannes, the Film Craft Grand Prix went to UK TV Channel 4's trailer for the Paralympics.

But the cult of caring has not only afflicted the advertising industry. Luxury goods companies are at it too. Only a few weeks ago, the group formerly known as PPR - which owns Gucci and Saint Laurent, among others - changed its name to...wait for it...Kering. Luxury brands used to be content to align themselves with the worlds of art and culture, but suddenly the only way is ethics. So please don't feel guilty when you buy that Gucci belt - you're clearly a lovely person.

In some ways this is good news. If all companies adopt a more benevolent attitude, perhaps some of the edges will be smoothed off our harsh, mercantile world. But do consumers really swallow the caring message? After all, the goal of most companies is to grow and thrive and keep their shareholders happy. It's nice to hear that they want to reduce advertising "pollution" and improve our lives. But they should beware of accusations of "care washing".